Judge To Let Liggett CEO Speak
MIAMI - The chief executive of Liggett Group Inc. will have wide latitude to testify about his early break with the rest of the tobacco industry on the dangers of smoking, a judge ruled Thursday.
"He's entitled to say something in his defense," said Circuit Judge Robert Kaye in the case of 300,000 to 700,000 sick Florida smokers seeking punitive damages. "He's here to plead his case."
Philip Morris attorney Dan Webb had asked the judge Wednesday to sever Liggett and its witnesses from the punitive-damage phase of the case and tried to limit the appearance by Bennett LeBow, Liggett's CEO.
Kaye rejected the severance request and said LeBow could cover the subjects he wants as long as he doesn't "get into a diatribe," noting three other tobacco CEOs already have testified at length.
LeBow was to begin his testimony after attorneys completed arguments on unrelated motions to exclude other tobacco witnesses.
He broke ranks with the rest of the tobacco industry three years ago to say smoking is deadly and addictive, disclosed years of internal industry documents and stopped all company advertising.
The smokers are seeking a potential multibillion-dollar punitive damages verdict to punish Liggett and four other tobacco companies for decades of misconduct.
The industry has argued no money should be awarded based on changes adopted by cigarette makers under a $254 billion commitment to settle state lawsuits.
Webb had warned Wednesday of "an end-of-the-world scenario" if LeBow was allowed to testify broadly about his change of attitude.
Webb suggested keeping Liggett witnesses off the stand for now, having the jury reach a verdict on the other four cigarette makers and bringing the jury back to hear from people like LeBow.
Smokers' attorney Stanley Rosenblatt called it "one of the worst suggestions I've heard in a long time."
The other defendants previously lost an attempt to go on trial without Liggett, claiming an almost adversarial relationship on the same side.
Liggett in 1997 settled lawsuits with what then were just 22 states suing the industry, turning over thousands of secret documents concerning smoking's health risks to use as evidence against its competitors.
The jury already has decided the industry makes a deadly, defective product and awarded $12.7 million in compensatory damages to three smokers.
Smokers' witnesses have testified the industry can raise $150 billion to $157 billion to pay a punitive award.
Besides Liggett and Philip Morris, the other defendants in the case are Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp., Lorillard Tobacco Co. and the industry's defunct Council for Tobacco Research and Tobacco Institute.